The Albany Times Union by ROBERT GAVIN - May 12, 2009
ALBANY, NEW YORK - Former state Health Commissioner Antonia Novello faces up to 12 years in prison on charges she illegally ordered state workers to chauffeur her around on shopping sprees, pick up her dry cleaning and water her plants over a two-year period. A 20-count criminal indictment unsealed in Albany County Court this morning alleged Novello used her staff employees, including a security assistant, to do "personal services for her." It also said she filed false information on a state comptroller's office form, failing to list the "chauffeur amount" that benefitted her. The one-time U.S. surgeon general pleaded not guilty to one count of defrauding the government and three counts of filing a false instrument, both low-level felonies. She entered the same plea to 16 counts of theft of government services, a misdemeanor. The indictment listed the amount of money involved as in "excess of $1,000," though she had been alleged to cost taxpayers $50,000. The typically outspoken Novello, 64, appeared somber as she entered the second-floor courtroom of Judge Stephen Herrick, joined by attorney E. Stewart Jones. She answered no questions from reporters as she awaited Herrick. "Are you Antonia Novello?" the judge asked. "Yes, sir," the former commissioner replied. "Is that your signature," he later asked after Novello signed a procedural document. "Yes it is,'" Novello said quietly. "Yes, your, honor," Herrick released Novello without any bail, but not before asking her to surrender her passport. She exited with Jones to face cameras. Novello remained silent. Jones did not.
The high-profile attorney blasted state Inspector General Joseph Fisch's office, which referred the case to Albany County District Attorney David Soares' office. Jones called her prosecution a "selective process" that should have been handled in civil court. He said the inspector general's office "discriminatory criminalized, politicized and distorted" the case. "It never should have reached this point," Jones said. " (That) one of our nations's great public servants stands here today is a shame. And the shame is on the inspector's office for putting her in this position." He said Novello would have paid back the state had she been asked. He said she was never given notice and called the case unfair. He said members of Congress, as well as the Obama and Paterson administrations, have done "far worse" than Novello and not been criminally charged. "Why is she here?" a visibly irked Jones told reporters. "She's here because she has a bull's-eye on her back. Because politics is a contact sport. Because there are people who are vindictive and who have wanted to get her ever since she left the state."
Soares said Novello's status as a once top state and national official was "irrelevant" in his decision making about the prosecution of the case. Asked about Jones' contention no one ever explained Novello the problem, Soares said, "I think as time goes on and the facts of this case come out, you will see that statement is not necessary correct." He said it was a similar case to his office's prosecution of former Comptroller Alan Hevesi, who used state employees to chauffeur his wife, "in the sense that there's a misappropriation of state resources." He bemoaned that state law does not allow a more serious charges for the amount of money involved. Had Novello taken thousands in paper clips, he noted, she could have been charged with a more serious felony.
The charge of defrauding the government, according to the indictment, alleged Novello used employees under her supervision "for her personal purposes while such state employees were being paid by the state of New York for regular and overtime hours during the time they were directed by the defendant to perform such personal services for her." Heather Orth, a spokeswoman for Soares, said the allegations mirrors accusations detailed in a January state Inspector General's Office report about of her conduct as commissioner. In a strongly worded report, Fisch said Novello shamelessly and blatantly exploited and abused her staff by requiring guards to chauffeur her to malls and stores and required staffers to rack up 2,540 hours of overtime at a cost of $50,000 to taxpayers. Besides ferrying her to Colonie Center and Crossgates Mall, staffers were ordered to water her house plants, buy her groceries, handle her dry cleaning and be "on call" nights, weekends and holidays. The acts drew the concern of Novello's top deputy, Dennis Whalen, now Gov. David Paterson's director of operations. He wrote in 2003 that she should not be using staff for non-state services, Fisch found. In recent weeks, several state officials have testified in front of an Albany County grand jury investigating Novello's conduct during her 1999-to-2006 tenure as commissioner, people familiar with the investigation told the Times Union.
Novello served in the office under Gov. George Pataki following her service as surgeon general under President George H.W. Bush from 1990 to 1993. She would be the latest of a series of state officials investigated and prosecuted for the way they conducted themselves as a public servant. Accusations of misuse of state employees and a warped sense of privilege arose frequently during the 64-year-old doctor's run in charge of the state's multibillion-dollar health program. She was known to spend extravagantly on her large office in the Corning Tower. According to the inspector general's report, security guards repeatedly transported Novello's mother to the Newark, N.J., airport to catch flights to Puerto Rico. He noted that Novello failed to fully declare the perks on her tax returns and turned the case over to the Albany County district attorney. She is employed now as an executive with Disney Children's Hospital in Orlando, Fla. Capitol Reporter James M. Odato contributed to this report.